How Wrong Was Angela Merkel’s Foreign Policy?

July 01, 2022
Photo credit: Drop of Light /
In interviews, Germany’s former chancellor vigorously defends herself against the accusation that she underestimated Vladimir Putin.

Below, her longtime chief adviser Christoph Heusgen; Germany’s former ambassador in Moscow, Rüdiger von Fritsch; Greens politician Marieluise Beck; and GMF vice president and executive director of the Berlin office Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff debate the issue.

DIE ZEIT: Is Germany partly to blame for the situation in Ukraine?

Rüdiger von Fritsch: That is pretty much the most German of all questions! This eternal debate: Where did we cause what?

Christoph Heusgen: Putin started the brutal invasion. No one else is to blame.

Marieluise Beck: Yes. It is the war that Putin’s Russia started. But it is also true that our country ignored the true character of the regime for too long, and it was not prepared to build a policy of strength alongside diplomacy. That gives us a share of responsibility.

DIE ZEIT: We ask because Angela Merkel says she cannot blame herself for having done too little to prevent the war. Mr. Heusgen, you were her foreign policy adviser. Is she right?

Heusgen: Yes, she is. I can attest to that for the period until 2017. That’s when I was her adviser before I went to New York as UN ambassador. After Putin’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014, the chancellor did what was possible. The German government pressed for and obtained tough sanctions and got Putin to the negotiating table as a result. That put a stop to the aggression, albeit, as we know today, only temporarily.

von Fritsch: I see it the same way. I also experienced it as ambassador in Moscow until 2019. It may be true, Ms. Beck, that we have not developed a policy of our own strength, specifically military strength. But you cannot claim that we did not understand the nature of the regime. It was always clear to us: Putin is aggressive. On February 24, he flipped the chessboard; in place of jointly designed security, he put confrontation. That doesn’t make our previous foreign policy wrong.

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff: We like to tell the history of the federal republic as a foreign policy triumph: integration into the West, Ostpolitik, reunification, globalization. Now we are experiencing the first major crash of German foreign policy. Our beautiful assumptions about change through rapprochement, interdependence, and rules-based cooperation are broken. Yet we don’t want to have done anything wrong? Mrs. Merkel says: “After all, diplomacy, if it doesn’t succeed, hasn’t been wrong.” No one claims that, either, but rather that diplomacy can hardly succeed when you depend on autocrats and don’t invest in your own strength. I would like Mrs. Merkel to get involved in working through this major crash instead of intellectually refusing to do so.

Heusgen: Big crash? Please!

Kleine-Brockhoff: We are being blackmailed by artificial gas shortages. We have a Bundeswehr with very limited operational capability. We can hardly help Ukraine with weapons. Our Russia policy is in shambles. Our theories about foreign policy are in question. If that’s not a major crash ...

Heusgen: In my four years at the UN, two of them in the Security Council, I have experienced that Germany’s reputation is very, very high worldwide...

Beck: I think that is self-deception. Our allies in Central and Eastern Europe see it quite differently.

Heusgen: ... because we are in the front row when it comes to maintaining the rules-based order. This high reputation of the federal republic has not suffered as a result of Russia’s invasion; on the contrary, it is now becoming clear how important it is to insist on rules. Mr. von Fritsch is right with the image of the chessboard. It was Putin’s breach of civilization that changed the game.

ZEIT: Ms. Merkel recently said: “Ukraine and Georgia were not stable enough domestically at the time to join NATO. There was corruption, the population was divided on the NATO issue.”

Heusgen: That’s right. In Ukraine, a domestic political battle raged in 2008 after the Orange Revolution. President versus prime minister. Russia had its Black Sea Fleet stationed in Ukrainian territory, in Crimea. How can a country be accepted if this would bring a Russian military base onto NATO territory?

Beck: By depriving Ukraine of the hope of joining NATO, Putin was encouraged. Germany’s response to Russia’s invasion of Georgia was further concessions. In 2010, the German government offered Russia the “modernization partnership.” Germany had already ignored Russia’s war of extermination in Chechnya. Instead, Putin was received like a savior when he spoke in the Bundestag in 2001.

von Fritsch: Nevertheless, the word “major crash” is a badly abbreviated portrayal of the policy of the entire West in recent decades. It was right to react decisively to rule-breaking and at the same time to try to resolve conflicts through dialogue.

Heusgen: You also believed in dialogue, Ms. Beck. You participated in the Petersburg Dialogue, which sought to weave threads between Germany and Russia. There was a period of opening in Russia. Under Dmitry Medvedev, civil society was doing better. That’s why these talks were not wrong.

Beck: Sorry, gentlemen. I have a lot of respect for the chancellor, you know that. But it’s too much self-righteousness for me to pretend that Germany’s foreign policy is in a good position in the world...

von Fritsch: No one has claimed that.

Beck: ... On the contrary, it is causing great irritation among our partners in Poland, in the Baltic states, and also in Scandinavia. Why? Because we have never thought geostrategically. Geostrategic thinking was considered something ugly, imperial. We good Germans preferred to offer humanitarian engagement. At the same time, Germany played hardball politics when it came to economic interests. That was cronyism with Putin.

von Fritsch: I agree with you on one point: Germany has always shied away from strategic debate. We have always hidden behind a half-sentence: “in view of our past.” That goes as far as the question of arms deliveries to conflict areas. Even or maybe especially your party has hidden behind this phrase, Ms. Beck. What a storm of indignation broke over then-party chair Robert Habeck when he said in 2021 that defensive weapons should be supplied to Ukraine!

Beck: As far as that is concerned, I don’t want to defend my party. But after February 24, we experienced an amazing turn of events. Not only among politicians but also among the public arms deliveries were supported. This willingness declined again when the chancellor scared the electorate when he referred to the possibility of a Third World War.

Heusgen: The word “cronyism,” Ms. Beck, outrages me. After all, who took the lead in 2014, after the Crimean annexation, in trying to contain Russia? Who made sure that the EU sanctions came about? First and foremost: the German chancellor and the German government. And who came down hardest on China and Russia in the UN Security Council? Germany, when it was a member!

Kleine-Brockhoff: When we talk about developments after 2014, we should also come to terms with what went wrong. For example, what did the Minsk peace negotiations achieve?

ZEIT: Ceasefire negotiations between Russia and Ukraine after the annexation of Crimea and the attack on Donbas.

Kleine-Brockhoff: When Minsk was negotiated, Ukraine was under enormous military pressure. The negotiations were helpful at first. But the agreements were quickly broken and later cemented Russian conquests in particular. Today, Mrs. Merkel says that the Minsk negotiations gave Ukraine time to prepare and develop. But how was this time used? For years, the German government tried to obstruct arms deliveries to Ukraine. This was the attitude of an idealistic peace power that did not want to understand a neo-imperial plan of conquest.

Heusgen: First, Ukraine has made the most of the time; it is in a much better position militarily and as a state today than it was then. Second, when you say that we should have supplied the Ukrainians with weapons earlier, that is self-deception. We in Germany have always had the firm conviction that we would not supply weapons to war zones. It would have been unthinkable to make such a decision before February 24, 2022. No party would have gone along with that, and—sorry—especially not the Greens. For me, too, the change in thinking came only in the summer of 2021. Putin published his essay in which he denied Ukraine its own statehood and accused it of genocide and fascism. At that moment, I thought: now we have to supply weapons.

Beck: After the experiences in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s, we should have learned that diplomacy has its limits. That there are points at which military force is necessary. But there were some weird ideas here in all parties. I would remind you that the Christian Democratic Union, and even more so the Christian Social Union, had bigger illusions about Russia than they would like to admit today.

ZEIT: Mr. Heusgen, why did the chancellor fear in 2008 that Ukraine joining NATO could be a “declaration of war” on Putin but underestimated the danger posed by Putin?

Heusgen: She did not underestimate this danger.

ZEIT: But if you recognize Russia as aggressive, why did you save on the Bundeswehr?

Heusgen: In 2014, after the war in eastern Ukraine began, the NATO summit in Wales decided that each member would spend 2 percent of its gross domestic product on armaments. The chancellor and the Social Democratic Party foreign minister at the time, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, signed off on this. Subsequently, the money did not come together in the budget negotiations within the coalition. The chancellor was always ready for it.

Kleine-Brockhoff: Chancellor Merkel would have had to invest her political capital to push through the 2 percent target. She never did that. The low point was the NATO summit in 2018, when she said, mutatis mutandis, that Germany was committed to the 2 percent target and was therefore aiming for 1.5 percent. That was cynical. That’s how you destroy the trust of your allies and signal to Putin that you’re not serious about deterrence.

Beck: It was not thought possible that we would ever be attacked again. Basically, even today, the war is not understood as one that is being waged against us. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be debating whether we can give Ukraine more military equipment—we would do so. If we understood Putin’s war for what it is—an attack on us—things would be different.

ZEIT: Angela Merkel says today that the Bundeswehr is not as bad as its reputation.

Kleine-Brockhoff: The Bundeswehr does not impress Putin. If we had met the 2 percent target early, we could talk differently with Putin today. This is one of the major mistakes of our policy toward an expansionist Russia.

von Fritsch: It annoys me when we focus on individual politicians. You can look at any actor of the last 30 years—their actions have always been an expression of a broad social consensus. We have to be honest and look at ourselves. We didn’t help Ukraine enough militarily? That may be true in retrospect. But the French did the same. The British said: We will not supply lethal weapons under any circumstances.

ZEIT: Ms. Merkel was also asked whether she believed Putin would not have attacked if she were still in office. She said: “My leaving may have been a contribution.” Is it possible that Putin was waiting for that, Mr. Heusgen?

Heusgen: I think that’s speculation. The major factor may have been the coronavirus pandemic. Putin has lived in complete isolation for two years. He has not held personal talks, not even with Mrs. Merkel. He has not allowed any advisers to approach him. He believed in his own propaganda. That’s why he initially miscalculated so brutally during the invasion. Could the chancellor have done anything? That is a hypothetical.

ZEIT: Is it possible that people were not mistaken about Putin but that Putin has changed?

von Fritsch: He certainly didn’t enter office in 2000 to attack Ukraine in 2022. There is no linearity there. He has increasingly developed into the type of authoritarian leader who, from his point of view, is successful, whom no one controlled anymore and no one dared to advise honestly.

Kleine-Brockhoff: There is the theory again that we could not have foreseen all of this, Mr. von Fritsch.

von Fritsch: I refer you to the analyses of practically all observers, also in Russia, until February 24—it was unlikely that Putin would invade Ukraine because he would do such damage to his country and his own power interests. Today it is easy to talk smart. By the way, also about the alleged dependence on Russia for gas.

ZEIT: The alleged dependence?

von Fritsch: We are not dependent on Russia. We are dependent on gas. Why? Because we all supported the energy transition.

Beck: Dear Mr. von Fritsch, in 2015, one year after the annexation of Crimea and the Donbas war, we decided to build a new pipeline that was clearly planned for geostrategic reasons: Nord Stream 2. No one can challenge that. It’s a fact.

von Fritsch: Are you saying that it was Putin who first used energy as a weapon? He didn’t. It was us: oil embargo, coal embargo, stopping Nord Stream 2. He simply started a war. That’s why Nord Stream 2 is a €10 billion Russian investment ruin on the floor of the Baltic Sea. We decided voluntarily on the energy transition, accelerated our exit from coal and nuclear power, and needed a bridging technology—gas. So we looked around. Who are the biggest producers? Not Luxembourg and Liechtenstein, but China, Iran, Qatar, Russia. Or we could have bought the ecologically ugly fracking gas from the United States.

Beck: My Green party has always warned against energy dependence on Russia. Poland has always warned. The warning was: Putin wants to drag us into gas dependence.

ZEIT: Angela Merkel has said that business and industry in particular wanted cheap gas from Russia.

Kleine-Brockhoff: Mrs. Merkel was very late in admitting that Nord Stream 2 has geopolitical consequences. The absurd thing is that after 2014 we did not decrease but further increase our dependence on Russian gas and Putin’s energy companies. Numerous countries have been blackmailed by Putin by cutting off supplies or creating sudden price hikes, such as Poland, Austria, Moldova, and Ukraine. Yet, we thought that our special relationship with Russia meant Putin would never do such a thing. Mrs. Merkel does not even consider this argument to be falsified by reality today. Remarkable!

ZEIT: Mr. Heusgen, as a foreign policy adviser, do you have any influence on foreign energy policy?

Heusgen: Government decisions are complex matters. So many views come together. In the case of Nord Stream 2, it was the decision of a coalition. As an adviser, you are only part of the puzzle.

ZEIT: Was this pipeline decision wrong?

Heusgen: The decision for Nord Stream 2 was wrong, yes. That’s another reason why I think we urgently need a National Security Council in Germany. There is hardly a Western country that does not have such an institution. The issue of energy security would naturally play a role there. Many of us were completely surprised to learn that not only the pipelines but also the storage facilities are owned by Russia. I was not aware of that either. A National Security Council would have noticed something like that; it would have noticed that Putin had ensured a very low storage level when he invaded Ukraine.

ZEIT: You all agree that there was a lack of strategic debate in Germany. Mr. Heusgen, couldn’t you have ensured exactly these discussions in the chancellery?

Heusgen: You overestimate the possibilities of an adviser. Today, after February 24, there is much greater acceptance among the population for a more active foreign policy. I found the recent speech by Social Democratic Party Chairman Lars Klingbeil remarkable. He said that Germany must take the lead. He is right. Let’s look at the bigger picture: In the United Nations, a majority of the nations of the Global South are on the Sino-Russian side. We are engaged in German navel-gazing here; instead, we should be thinking about how we, as a liberal West, can go on the offensive.

Beck: I reject the word “navel-gazing.” In view of the dramatic events in Ukraine, we must come to terms with our policies!

Heusgen: Yes but we forget to plan for the future? I am tired of listening to the never-ending Nord Stream 2 debate, even though I was not a fan of this pipeline.

ZEIT: What would you advise the government now?

Heusgen: Russia and China are becoming more aggressive. China is systematically expanding in Latin America, Africa, Asia, buying raw materials, building or buying strategic ports and infrastructure. We have to play a much bigger role in this global competition as the fourth-largest economy in the world, as the second-largest donor to the UN system. Stand on our own two feet. The first step would be to stop talking ourselves down. Our domestic stability is the envy of the whole world. We have to get involved on other continents, become a guarantor of international stability and adherence to rules.

ZEIT: One goal that could hopefully be achieved in the short term would be an end to the war. But how?

Beck: I would like the chancellor to make a clear statement: Putin must lose this war. And that we deliver to Ukraine what it needs. The message must be: our front is in Ukraine, that’s also where our freedom is being defended.

Kleine-Brockhoff: My model is Dayton; that is, the peace agreement for Bosnia in the 1990s. Serbia under Milošević was on the march at that time. The Americans had armed the Bosnian Muslims and the Bosnian Croats, and that changed the battlefield in such a way that the Serbs had to come to the negotiating table. That should be the goal here as well: to change the military situation by supplying weapons in favor of Ukraine in such a way that Russia agrees to negotiations.

von Fritsch: Agreed. But thereafter we need to shape a new era. The time of trying to create security cooperatively is over. Now we have to shape a period of orderly confrontation, similar to the Cold War.

Kleine-Brockhoff: If there is one positive lesson to be learned from this war, it is that Putin is not ten meters tall. If we all invest wisely in defense and help Ukraine, then the Europeans together will be able to defend themselves in the long run, at least conventionally.

This is a translation of an interview published by DIE ZEIT on June 29, 2022 under the headline “Wie falsch war Angela Merkels Außenpolitik?

Marieluise Beck was a member of the Bundestag for the Greens Party. She heads the think tank Zentrum Liberale Moderne and has been in Ukraine twice during the war.

Thomas Kleine-Brockhoff is vice president and executive director of the Berlin office of the German Marshall Fund of the United States. He was US correspondent for DIE ZEIT and later head of the planning staff for Germany’s President Joachim Gauck.

Christoph Heusgen was Chancellor Angela Merkel’s chief foreign policy adviser from 2005 to 2017. He heads the Munich Security Conference.

Rüdiger von Fritsch was Germany’s ambassador to Russia from 2014 to 2019. His book Zeitenwende—Putin’s Krieg und die Folgen [Zeitenwende—Putin’s War and its Consequences] was published in May.